The Cards We Hold
We played our hand badly in Norway, Greece and Crete— but Hitler played his last trump when he marched on Russia —Reed
IONDON—Since I last wrote for Maclean's the picture of the war has been entirely changed through the German attack on Russia. Until the last week in June the spectral menace of the only disaster still unsuffered hovered over this beleaguered but undefeated Island—the menace that Russo-German “friendship” would be transformed into a full military alliance for a joint blow at Britain. Now that danger is gone and with it, as I think, Hitler’s last hope—if he still had hope— that he can win the war.
Whatever the result of this new Hitlerian adventure, one thing is clear, that his motive in attacking Russia is exactly the same as Napoleon’s in the last century—namely, failure to invade this Island, which forces a would-be world conqueror to seek elsewhere in Europe those triumphs which are essential to buoy up the spirit of his people for a further period. Napoleon’s dream of conquering Britain and ruling the world faded when the French Navy was defeated by the British Navy at Trafalgar, but his European campaigns continued long after that before his final overthrow. I Iitler’s similar dreams faded last September when the British Air Force threw back the German airmen from British coasts. Therefore Hitler, like Napoleon, marched Moscow-ward, but Hitler’s reprieve will be shorter than Napoleon’s.
At this moment the entire picture of the war is dominated by a gigantic question mark—-the value of the Red Army. Ever since Hitler’s advent to power it has been clear that he might profess friendship with Russia when ready to attack the Western powers, and equally clear that he might attack Russia when that trick had served its turn. What was never clear; what was wrapped in mystery was the amount of resistance which the Red Army might offer in that event. Red troops fought well against the Japanese, poorly against the Finns.
German experts, whose views command respect because
of Germany’s military successes, believed the Reichswehr would go through the Red Army “like a knife through butter.” Now the test has come and the answer to the gigantic question mark will soon be supplied.
As I write it is only clear that German hopes have not been completely fulfilled and that Red resistance is very stubborn. If the Soviet armies should be able to hold up the Germans for three months the entire picture of the war will be transformed, for in that event Hitler would be a beaten man this coming winter. He might cling to the threadbare garb of dictatorship a little while longer but defeatist presentiment would be so large in German hearts that his end could not long be delayed and the beginnings of new groupings in Germany would show themselves this autumn and winter.
But if Hitler yet succeeds to the utmost of his hopes, crushes Russian resistance, smashes the Soviet Air Force, turns on Britain—-what then? He will still be greatly weakened and while he is attacking Russia this country is growing daily stronger. Six months ago the ears of Londoners and the people of many other British cities nightly pricked up in anticipation of the dread sound of German bombers. For many weeks now that sound has not been heard, but instead the roar of British bombers in ever growing numbers departing for Germany. For the first time Germany is getting a taste of her own medicine.
It is yet too early to be certain but if the Russians can hold the Germans a few weeks longer the turning point in the war is near. If they cannot, Hitler has still an unsolvable problem in the conquest of this Island.
It Takes Skill to Win
THIS WAR is like a gigantic game of cards: the resspective hands may be played well, to win with a maximum number of tricks; played indifferently, to scrape home by the odd trick, or played badly, to lose. The trained observer—if I may claim that description—can walk round the table before the game begins, study the cards in each player’s hand, and say who ought to win, on the cards. He cannot say who will win, for if a hand be played badly enough a player may, and often has been left sitting with the ace of trumps.
I feel the need to explain this distinction, between the cards and the way they are played, because so many people, who found me to be too “pessimistic” in foretelling that the war would come about if we did not play certain cards, now find me too “optimistic” because I have been saying for the past year that, on the cards, we can win, and win
decisively, and win even in 1942. Too many people, who read carelessly, take me to say that we shall win, decisively, and in 1942. I do not say that —for I am not playing the hand, nor have I any influence over the players. Norway; Libya; Greece; Crete; all these cards were played badly, but they were not bad cards and could have been played better. If we went on playing cards like that we should delay or even imperil our victory. The most cautious observer could not have expected them to be played so ill, seeing that their face value was good. But still the game goes on and is far from lost. Only incorrigible dilatoriness, complete inability ever to learn any lesson, could lose it for us. Our cards are still winning ones. After many bitter disappointments, one must hope that we shall begin to play them better soon.
Let me put some of the leading cards on the table and explain their value and meaning. Hitler is at the peak of his triumphs. Save for the rock-fortress of Gibraltar, the temporarily reprieved States of Sweden and Switzerland (and, for some curious reason, the jxjcket-handkerchief Statelet of Liechtenstein, which he has forgotten or deliberately decided not to filch) and Spain and Portugal, which he may at any moment overrun, he is master of Europe. Only this beleagured Island and Russia still defy him.
Yet, since the war began, a leading German Gene al, Von Fritsch, a German Admiral, Boehm, the Naval Commander in Chief in Norway, and a senior German captain, the commander of the Graf Spee. have committed suicide or thrown away their lives from despair. Hitler’s own closest associate and most fervid disciple, Rudolf Hess, is a captive in Britain. None of these things would have happened in a State which is certain, as Hitler claims to be, of “final victory this year.” Whatever the motives of Hess’ visit —and I regard it with the utmost suspicion— he would not have come if military victory had been within grasp.
Add to this that the British Navy still commands the seas and, in the first twenty-one months of this war, has written pages more splendid than any in its history. It has never once let us down, and recently added a magnificently efficient achievement to its record by sinking the Bismarck, Germany’s proudest ship. In evacuation after evacuation it has extricated British troops from calamitous situations, with complete disregard for its own safety, and at Taranto and Matapan it dealt deadly blows at the Italian Navy. It is fighting against heavier odds than at any time since Napoleon and the Spanish Armada, but it
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still remains master of the seas. And it was the slow, but inexorably tightening squeeze of sea power which in the last war, after three and a half years of successes on land, suddenly showed German triumphs to be illusory, converted them into defeat. The U.S. A., now as then, is irrevocably on the way to intervention.
The Navy’s record stands peerless. The Royal Air Force saved Britain last year, and enabled the war to continue, by smashing 1 Iitler’s air assault on this Island. Since then, in Libya, in Greece, in Crete, it has been successful. Seemingly it was outnumbered; but graver is the very widespread feeling among the British public that its leaders did not foresee the speed and ingenuity of German air attacks. In each case the troops on the ground were left in a hopeless position—as in France and Norway a year ago—from lack of air support, and large numbers of people in this country feel that in the time that has elapsed since we had those terrible, and nearly fatal lessons, much more should have been learned. In other words, that the cards were badly played.
Someone Had Blundered
AND THAT brings us to the Army, ^ the troops on the ground. From the days of the Crimean War—down through the Boer War and the Great War, with the appallingly wasteful and strategically unpromising mass assaults on the Somme and at Passchendaele—to Norway,
France, Libya, Greece and Crete, the story of the Britisli Army has been a sad one. The exploits of the British Navy in this war, and of the Royal Air Force last summer, show that the people of this country are still, as they always were, among the best and most dogged fighters of the world. The achievements of Australian and New Zealand troops in Libya, and their performance against hopeless odds in Greece and Crete, show that the soldiers from the Dominions are just as tenacious and valorous. Well supported, well equipped, well led, these men would smash a German attack to smithereens— and that only needs to be done once for the Nazi idol to begin to totter on its feet of clay.
But from the days of the Crimean War until now the leadership of the British Army has gradually built up a debit balance of misgiving about its alertness, its lack of foresight, its inability quickly to realize that times have changed and weapons have altered and methods have been accelerated—in short, that we are living in 1941 and fighting the German Army, which needs quickly to be reduced. The glorification in poetry of the “Charge of the Light Brigade”at Balaclava does not alter the fact that that hojxdess exploit was the result of a mistake of the most elementary kind in staff work: it is only a pity that rosy legends are built around such disasters. Nearly a century later, readers of “The Diary of a Staff Officer” in France in June 1940, as Canadian
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will know, alert and anxious men had impotenti y and angrily to watch British airplanes being sent to bomb German factories far behind the line while massed German tanks in a bottle neck near the front escaped unscathed.
In 1941, while the inevitable letters in The Times protest against “criticism of a lack of foresight in Crete, an underestimation of the rapidity of action of the enemy, a failure to destroy airdromes and so forth,” there is a very widespread feeling among the public that our cause in Greece did suffer once more from those age old besetting sins of laggardliness, dilatoriness and lack of foresight. When the Germans began to drive down into Greece, the British public was told that adequate air support for the hard-pressed British and Empire forces was impossible because the airfields in that country were so few and so inadequate. We had held them for six months, yet when the Germans had had them for less than six weeks they had developed air bases sufficient to launch a thousand aircraft against Crete. In Crete, we had had seven months to prepare, and once more our troops had to be left without air support for lack of airfields. Yet the one good airport was not sufficiently defended to prevent the Germans from capturing it in a reckless air assault, and preparations had not been made to destroy it in the event of its loss becoming inevitable.
The British people do not believe that Crete need have been lost. Indeed, they were told only a few days before it fell, by a Royal Air Force spokesman that it would not and could not be lost.
The outstanding thing about this war is that the average man in Britain seems to have a clearer idea of the dangers that threaten, and of the things that ought to be done, than many political and military leaders. A year ago, everybody expected that Germany would strike at Norway; only the leaders seem not to have foreseen this, or if they foresaw it, did nothing to thwart that adventure. A month ago everybody knew that the Germans would attack Crete and assumed that such elementary measures as adequate defense for airdromes, or preparations to make them useless if they had to be abandoned, had been taken. The result was a very bitter disappointment.
Critics Without Honor
ANOTHER incomprehensible and ***■ ominous thing is the hostility with which those are treated, in this country, who foresee the German moves and call for adequate measures to be taken in time. They are repeatedly attacked by government spokesmen in Parliament and the radio as nagging “critics,” they are often banned in the Press. Complacency still seems, in the higher circles in this country, to be regarded as the supreme virtue. The popular “Sunday evening postscripts,” on the radio which when they began seemed likely to introduce an element of constructive criticism into public debate, have now been watered down and watered down until they have descended to the level of lullabies sung by people whose only idea seems to be to justify every instance of incompetency or maladministration and who intersperse their bed time stories with jeers and sneers at “the critics.”
The only “critics” in this country who have any importance are those who foresee the things the Germans do and call for them to be forethwarted in time, who are desperately anxious that there should be no waste of British life, or British money, or British time, in winning this war. They are, on the whole, the same people who deeply distrusted and feared the policy of Mr. Chamberlain, and they are now being attacked by the selfsame people who defended that policy and pretended that it would preserve the peace. Mr. Churchill was the chief spokesman of those who feared Mr. Chamberlain’s policy. It is a strange paradox, and a thing of ill omen for the future, that he has inherited the same machine of criticism, repression, and almost identically the same body of col labora tors, who accompanied Mr. Chamberlain on his way, chanting “This path leads to Peace.” If British armies have been left short of equipment or air support, these people are to blame. But still, at every setback, the cry of “no recriminations” goes up and still the reproach, “He criticized Mr. Chamberlain in the Munich days,” is seemingly enough to disqualify highly qualified men from contributing to the prosecution of the war.
However, what patriots in this country', for all their efforts, have been unable to
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achieve may be brought about by “criticism” from overseas. For the loss of Greece and Crete brought very sharp criticism indeed from Australia, whose troops were involved. And Turkey, a country we sorely need as an ally, has pointedly asked in the press why British bombers spend so much time bombing Brest (the German morale can stand any amount of bombing of Frenchmen), and has expressed the opinion that the loss of Crete was “incomprehensible”.
Another tiling that is widely felt in this country is that “shortage of equipment” will not very much longer continue to be a valid explanation for setbacks. For we have been at war now nearly two years, and we are said to be receiving immense supplies from America. But in the case of Greece and Crete, be it noted, “shortage of equipment” was not given as a reason. Lack of air support for the ground troops, caused by lack of airdromes, was the reason given. And the thing that disturbs ¡oeople in this country so very much about this explanation is that Hitler’s air force was able to make such quick and lavish and excellent use of those very airdromes which were supposed either not to exist or to be inadequate.
The loss of Libya was bad because the stealth with which the Germans transported an army there was seemingly entirely successful in eluding the observation of our military observers. Greece was bound to be lost —but many people feel that we had had enough time there to have prepared a far more stubborn resistance. The loss of Crete seems to many jxiople here, as to those Turks, “incomprehensible”—or explicable only by a lack of prescience and alertness in in the quarters concerned far graver than the average British citizen would show.
However, at the worst these are but setbacks, not defeat. We have something to show on the credit side, even apart from the priceless destruction of the Bismarck. We have put Haile Selassie back on his throne. As I write, we still hold Egypt against the German thrust towards Suez from the West. We have marched into Syria to forethwart his thrust towards Suez from the East. We have restored the situation in Iraq, where a Ilitlerist plan has gone agley. If only we have made adequate preparations for “air support” in those places, we should be able to smash that thrust— and Hitler, as I have said before, cannot survive even setbacks, even less defeat. If his drive towards Suez be smashed, he is already on the way to defeat.
But the lesson of Crete is a very grave one. It was a lesson in the art of warfare. Incidentally, it bears out a view I have expressed in these articles but have never been able to get any newspaper in Britain to print. This is the warning that Hitler’s invasion of this country if and when it comes, will not take the form of a direct, head-on assault on the Straits of Dover, on the point where our defenses are strongest, but that he would almost certainly attempt first an airborne invasion of Ireland, which, if it were successful, would place him directly astride our lifeline to America. His invasions of Libya and Crete show that he would have good prospects of success in an airborne attack on undefended Ireland. I have been unable to interest anybody here in this view. I only hope that the possibility, this time at any rate, has been foreseen, and that adequate plans for a quick interception have been made.
TN THE FOURTH arm, Propaganda,
we still lag lamentably. I have called attention to this before. In my view a
skilful attack on the German mind, which is latently filled with the thought of “Nineteen-Eighteen,” coupled with air bombing and sea power, is a war winning weapon, but Propaganda here is still in the childish stage.
This brings me to the case of Rudolf Hess. “Propaganda” is the astute and eloquent exploitation of favorable news, and in the arrival of Rudolf Hess, whatever his motives, we had an opixirtunity that will never recur, a gift from heaven. It was as if we had planted a time bomb in the Reichstag when Hitler and all the other Nazi leaders were assembled there. We have let it deteriorate into a dud.
This is one of the most lamentable things in the story of the war to date. When he landed, a few meagre scraps of information about the reasons for his coming were made known, and all of them were later contradicted. A “full statement” was promised and has never been made, though he was put under interrogation. Silence has fallen, like a black veil, over the affair. An asset has turned almost into a liability—for this very silence must raise suspicion in quarters where suspicion is bad for us.
I knew Hess in Germany and am convinced that this is the one man among all the Nazi leaders who is so devoted to Hitler that he would never run away from him. But he came to Britain ! That can only mean, in my view, that Hitler believes the conquest of this Island impossible, or possible only at a risk which he is not prepared to take, but thinks that he might bring it about by some trick. I know that Hess is the man to volunteer for a desperate adventure, at the risk of his life, if he thought it would bring Germany victory.
When Hess landed here it was announced that he had come to see a Duke (on whose estate he actually landed, after a fantastically skilful piece of navigation) who was formerly among the ardent supporters of Mr. Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement; that this Duke had made Hess’ acquaintance in Germany before the war; and that Hess some months ago had communicated with this Duke by letter. Later the same authority which had made these announcements stated that the Duke had never met Hess and had never had a letter from him.
All signs are that the real reason for Hess’ destrate venture was the hope that the war could be switched into an anti-Russian war now that the conquest of Britain was unattainable. If that is so, Hitler’s hopes were disappointed and he was hoist on his own petard. That was Hitler’s last trump card and it has failed. The only way Britain could still lose this war would have been to swallow that bait. The bait has not been swallowed. The moving finger now begins to write Hitler’s doom.
In this country, in spite of all setbacks, in spite of these unnecessary and perturbing mysteries, dogged and tranquil confidence in victory persists. The masses of the people assume invincibly, if they do not come to this belief by logical deduction, that we shall win, that all mistakes will somehow be overcome and made good in time; that we shall in God’s good time get into our stride and crush the new Napoleon. In one of the coldest and gloomiest Junes in memory, the staunch spirit of the people remains as invigorating and astonishing as ever. Faith in the leadership has been slightly jarred, but not really shaken. That most curious of all phenomena, the phlegm of the British people in one of the great crises of their history, astounds again.